29 September 2016

Road Trip 1 - Escape!

The road to the sun.....

Dark storm clouds pile over Bracciano Castle though the evening sun still slants through and shimmers on the lake.  I step onto the rocks by the Trevignano promenade to get a better shot.  Then, gravity fails, and I miss my footing, falling back heavily on the angular blocks.  For a crazy moment my thoughts swirl around protecting the camera, the fact that my umbrella is bent and the annoyance that I hit my left elbow in breaking my fall.

A few minutes later I remove my jacket and cool water from a drinking fountain washes away the blood, and helps reduce the ugly swelling that has appeared.  I bind the wound with my handkerchief, replace my jacket, and gingerly proceed. 

We are due to meet our 104-year-old friend, Truman, and indeed we join him for his habitual Jack Daniels #7, but, despite his invitation to dinner, I am too shaken to accept and we sadly retreat to our accommodation.  What irony that it is my frailty, and not the centenarian’s, that intervenes?

I think, in retrospect, that I would have been less concerned had I not just driven 1,500 miles to our erstwhile home in Italy, and that consequently there was a long road home…….  A damaged arm does not fit well with days at the wheel……


However, it had all started well, with a smooth run down to Dover, the lounge aboard the P & O Ferry providing champagne, and then a clear motorway out of Calais (not looking so good on the way in – police vans all over the place, great gashes in the razor fences, and two massive hauliers blocking the incoming traffic).  Irony sometimes comes in bundles, and I muddle over the facts that thousands are camping here, desperate to enter Britain, while we are speeding away, confused by Brexit, wishing it wouldn’t happen, cursing the misleaders and faced with at least 10% if not much more on the cost of this fugue because of the fallen pound.  Not that we aren’t excited.  The road south, the road to the sun.  Term time, and we are free! 

However, it is a theme of this trip that we pass through six countries and everywhere, when asked where we are from, we feel shame in saying England, shame because we are now seen to be ungrateful for Europe - arrogant, selfish Brexiteers (whichever way we personally voted makes no odds to the people we appear to shun).  I want to apologise; to say it is all a dream, a mistake, and that we love being in Europe and that we strongly believe that unity is right.  But it is won’t work.  The damage is done.  I fell and my arm hurts; no wishing my stupidity hadn’t happened makes a difference.

Anyway, the road south.  Into the sun.  We spend the first night on a farm near Soissons, chosen so we could see the ruins of the eleventh century Abbey of St Jean des Vignes, one of the richest abbeys of medieval France. The two unequal towers of the west front still leap seventy metres heavenwards, despite the destruction of much of the rest of the complex under Napoleon I. 

In the morning, we leave the village, passing a shaded war cemetery, reminding us that peace was gained the hard way.  We then follow the Chemin des Dames, passing the site where 12,000 died on March 7th 1814 when Napoleon underestimated his Russian adversary.  

In March 1914, to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Craonne a memorial was unveiled near Hurtebise Farm.  Only months later, this was destroyed during fierce fighting.  

A little further along the 30 km ridge we stop at the Monument des Basques, which was raised in 1928 to commemorate the losses of young men from the south-west of France, members of the 36th Infantry Division, who died here in a number of conflicts between 1914 and 1918.

Our second night is spent in the Jura.  My plan had been to limit the driving to about four hours or so a day, and to explore places we had not visited before.  

Here we are in walking country, and an excursion to where the river Lison issues from a massive limestone cliff does not disappoint. 

The village of Nans-sous-Ste-Anne is quiet, save for the clonking of cattle bells and the purring of cats, and our accommodation aside the chateau is beautiful, with stone flags on the ground floor and waxed wood upstairs.  

Our hosts are wonderful, and the other guests most polite, though I sense a delicate touch of disapproval…. (Brexit again?) Despite that, delightfully, there is a rather good restaurant nearby…..

And the cats don't seem to mind us as we walk back in the dusk....

Day three and we cross the Alps.  At first our roads are clear and rural, but then we pass through Switzerland, by Lausanne and Montreux whereabouts we pick up some traffic.  As we begin to rise towards the Great St Bernard Pass the road deteriorates, and at times is only single carriageway.  

We decide against the tunnel, and wind up the old pass (at 2,469 metres above sea level) to take a break at the hospice.  

Fluffy toy St Bernards crowd round us, but we stick to fresh air, beer and a sandwich.  

A kindly nun expertly takes our picture with the mountains in the background, 

and then we plunge into Italy, winding down and round towards the Valley of Aosta and our third night on the road, an agriturismo remotely situated some way above Biella.

We have reached the promised land, and we walk among the chestnut trees, looking down across the country.  In the Santuario Mariano Madonna della Brughiere, just below our lodging, the priests have blown out the candles....

and it is time to repair to Il Castagneto for an early pizza, a glass of wine, and all things Italian. This was our homeland for more than twenty years, and it is great to be back again, though some things may never be the same…..

So far, so good, though.  Brexit seems a long way away, and the sun is ahead of us….

I love St Bernards, and not just because of the barrel: our butcher in Drayton (Portsmouth) had one when I was small.  I remember he (the dog, not the butcher....) used to pad across the sawdust strewn floor of the shop, as big as a horse to little me....  And I remember my mother handing over the ration book (to the butcher, not the dog.....)  

I wonder if the dog had rations?

6 September 2016

Summer's lease hath all too short a date


The last rose of summer

It was a good summer, wasn't it? Apart from remembering the big freeze of 1963 and being bitten by a plague of ladybirds in 1976, I find it hard to remember details from one year to the next.  Did we have a wet spring?  Was the winter mild?  

As Porgy sang to Bess (or was it the other way round?)


And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high

The sky, sometimes blue, towers over us, the days are never-ending, and nature blooms:

Pan appears in blue - or is it Donald Trump?

I love the spring, with its fresh promise, but as the crops reach maturity it is hard to think of anywhere better than the English countryside:

It's a time for being outside, by the sea, with a bottle of chilled wine and a picnic:

Your daddy's rich

And your mamma's good lookin'
So hush little baby
Don't you cry

And speaking of rich daddies, etc, one of the trees we sat under this summer was that (as a young tree, obviously) had sheltered Princess Elizabeth when news was brought to her that her father had crumpled..... It doesn't look so youthful now, but it's still going strong in the grounds of Hatfield House.....

And so another English rose came into flower....

Though perhaps the analogy is better without the mosquito....

And maybe even better in virginal white?

This really is the season of the birds:

And the bees:

Of poppies:

And oxeye daisies in the fields:

Of honeysuckle in the hedgerows:

And purple loosestrife in my favourite part of the Chilterns:

It was a lovely summer.  The particular politics of this summer made it necessary to celebrate the best of Britain, rather than to dwell on inequalities or to cry over sour milk. We admired the roses on the stones of the National Trust property at Lacock Abbey, once home to William Henry Fox Talbot and so one of the nurseries of photography:

We walked through the landscaped park of Brocket Hall, only a few miles from home:

And, courtesy of British Gas, who, as a reward for paying astronomic prices for gas and electricity, gave us a few weeks' trial membership of English Heritage, we had a morning to wander in the gardens of Wrest Park:

And subsequently sheltered under a magnificent London plane tree at Audley End:

At Dyrham Park (from the Saxon word doerham - deer) we were bashfully examined by some of the 200 fallow deer that live there:

And elsewhere and everywhere I turned my lens on the beautiful insects that flutter busily around to make the most the sunny days. Here's a peacock butterfly on a teasel:

And here's a red admiral on bramble flowers:

And this is a comma:

And this dazzling beauty is a common blue damselfly at rest:

Living on the edge of East Anglia we can reach the coast of Suffolk in about two and a half hours.  It's good to have a change of air sometimes, and there are some very peaceful spots, like this landing stage on the River Ore at Havergate Island:

Just north of Cambridge, at Fen Drayton Lakes, reeds were being harvested from the Great Ouse:

Though it is birds that normally draw me to these RSPB reserves. This cormorant taking off is by no means a rare sight, but it's still a marvel to behold:

And the willowy, watery world at Fowlmere is always peaceful with its grey green light:

Despite being on the east coast, the evening light at Aldeburgh is captivating, and it is great to scrunch along the shingle at dusk.  Here the old lifeboat station settles with the sun behind it:

And in the top left window of this holiday house a wistful figure watches the sea at bedtime, writing a farewell to the summer holidays with a finger on the glass:

Back home in the fields in Hertfordshire the crops ripen and the poppies fade:

And Will Dickinson, whose family have farmed Cross Farm at Harpenden for six generations, brings in the harvest.  It's been a good summer, and I hope Will's yields are high this year, not just because he's a neighbour, but also because he values this country, and its place in the European Union.  As he said, in an interview with the Herts Advertiser, he believes that to remain within the union is the best way to preserve the integrity of my business and he does not believe that any new independent UK government will relinquish any control that these [EU-derived] regulations give them..... 

It has been a lovely summer.  We must celebrate what we have:

One of these mornings
You're going to rise up singing
Then you'll spread your wings
And you'll take to the sky

But till that morning
There's a'nothing can harm you
With daddy and mamma standing by

George Gershwin/DuBose Heyward

(Even if.....)

Sometimes I wonder what I’m gonna do

But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues 

Summertime Blues
Eddie Cochran/Jerry Capehart

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Jeremiah, 8: 20